Philadelphia restaurants are relying heavily on outdoor tables as a way to offer customers a relatively safer dining-out experience amid a pandemic. But with cold weather on the way, restaurants are faced with the reality that outdoor dining, and outdoor drinking, isn’t going to be a viable solution for much longer. Enter plastic dining bubbles, greenhouses, and blankets.
At Germantown Garden in Northern Liberties, which recently pivoted from beer garden to outdoor steakhouse, co-owner Derek Gibbons installed 15 heat lamps and eight round plastic tents that look like bubbles, with plans to add more. The bubbles, which have their own heaters inside, cost him $350 to $500, depending on size — a smaller version fits a four-top table and the bigger bubble is large enough for a six-top with room to spare.
They’re sort of a middle ground between indoor and outdoor dining: Mostly enclosed, so they don’t count as eating outside, but separated from other diners in a way that’s impossible in a restaurant’s regular indoor dining room.
“The difficult part with all of this is that outdoor dining comes with a big investment, with having to buy heaters and transforming outdoor spaces for fall,” Gibbons says. But it’s worth it, he adds, since he thinks the additions will allow him to continue to offer outdoor dining into December, when the expanded dining options the city currently permits expire.
At Harper’s Garden at 18th and Ludlow, owner Avram Hornick, who runs multiple outdoor venues in Philly under FCM Hospitality, just set up six plastic greenhouse-style structures next to the restaurant, in a plaza Harper’s was already using for extra outdoor tables. The greenhouses can fit four to seven diners and have panels that can be left open, or closed to block wind, rain, and cold temps.
“Rain is never a friend of an outdoor venue,” Neina Langford, director of marketing at FCM Hospitalty, said via email. “The hardest obstacles were the ones we could not plan for, such as miscellaneous sun showers. Navigating the pandemic, as whole, while keeping the priority of our employees and guests has been challenging.”
With less physical space to work with, restaurateur Nicole Marquis is finding more traditional ways to keep customers comfortable while dining outside. Marquis owns vegan chain HipCityVeg as well as vegan bars Charlie Was a Sinner in the Gayborhood and Bar Bombon near Rittenhouse Square. At the two bars, she added a menu of hot drinks served in thermoses, including tequila-spiked hot chocolate and a coquito, as well as non-alcoholic options like hot cider. The drinks come with a blanket, embroidered with the bar’s logo, meant for diners to keep.
“The high-power space heaters, the hot cocktails, and the blankets help us make sure guests stay warm inside and out, so they’ll feel comfortable in our outdoor dining room as long as possible,” Marquis says. “I’m personally loving the outdoor dining experience — I think it should be a permanent fixture in Center City.”
Marquis isn’t the only one adding hot cocktails to combat the cold. On North Broad Street, restaurant and jazz club South has a courtyard with heat lamps, walls that block the wind, and a new menu of hot drinks, like a spicy spiked apple cider and a warm bourbon punch. This will be the first time outdoor dining at South goes into October, and hopefully beyond.
“For us, it’s simply good business to maintain outdoor dining,” says Robert Bynum, who owns South, along with a few other Philly restaurants, with his brother, Benjamin. “Every seat really counts whether it is indoors or out, when indoor capacity is capped at 50 percent.”
Marquis agrees keeping outdoor dining viable for as long as possible is crucial, especially as she weighs the pros and cons of indoor dining. “With the additional cost to our restaurants, and the burden to the staff of face shields and plastic barriers, some of us are going to be making some very painful cost-benefit decisions about whether indoor dining is worth it, especially because we’ve seen how things can change overnight,” she says. “We need to come up with safe and affordable solutions, so we can keep our iconic restaurants open and not see our city become a hollowed-out shell.”